Welcome back to 4 on 4! Here is week 13 of our weekly feature on LAKings.com. Four prominent hockey writers; John Hoven of The Mayor's Manor, Bryan Reynolds and Nathan Eide of Hockey Wilderness, Derek Tanabe of Fear the Fin, and Thomas Drance of Canucks Army will answer 4 questions pertaining to the sport we all love.
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Give your own answers and pose questions for future weeks in the comments.
It’s been (almost) 2 weeks since opening night -
1. What team has been the biggest surprise?
John Hoven @mayorNHL - On the other coast, it's been Tampa Bay. The addition of Anders Lindback in net has been everything GM Steve Yzerman could have hoped for. They've gone from giving up 3.39 goals per game to 2.50 and they've turned a minus-46 goal differential into a plus-6. A healthy Victor Hedman and Sami Salo have also helped the Bolts get off to a good start in the Southeast division. Watching the division champion Florida Panthers and perennial favorite Washington Capitals struggle at the same time should give Tampa Bay some added confidence in the weeks ahead. They look to be on the rebound following last season, when expectations were sky high coming off of their deep playoff run in 2011. A close second would be the Islanders, as for the last few years nobody has expected anything from them. And finally, the Chicago Blackhawks. Many had them as one of the better teams in the Western Conference, sure. But, they've been dominate most nights and haven't looked like a team coming off an eight month hiatus.
Nathan Eide @hockeywildernes - Chicago. I thought they would be good, but this is unreal. They're actually hitting a mid-season stride right now. I'm shocked at how well they are clicking, the level of goaltending from Crawford, the fact that they are getting scoring from all four lines and all three defensive pairings are getting reasonable ice time. Now granted, I'm watching them from the Al Shaver press box high atop the Xcel Energy Center, but this team is just fun to watch. There's no way they can keep up this pace, but man they are flying.
Derek Tanabe @fearthefin - I'd be lying if I didn't name the Ottawa Senators. I know they qualified for the postseason last year, but I honestly wasn't expecting them to be much more than a bubble team. Their cadre of talented young prospects aren't quite NHL-ready yet and their defense, at least on paper, looked to be largely a mess. Shows what I know as the Sens have stormed out of the gate to a 5-1-1 start and looked mighty impressive in the process. They're getting terrific contributions from depth players like Erik Condra and Jim O'Brien while Marc Methot has been the partner to Erik Karlsson that Filip Kuba could never be. They will likely struggle with Jason Spezza about to undergo surgery, but this is a team that's had success because of strong fundamental play more than early-season luck alone.
Dimitri Fillipovic @CanucksArmy - With all of these questions, you need to keep in mind that determining whether you’re surprised or disappointed by something has everything to do with your expectations going into the process. My answers will reflect my personal expectations heading into the season, which naturally may have differed from those of the mainstream media, and the general consensus.
Taking that into account, the most surprising team for me thus far has been the Tampa Bay Lightning. I can’t put the San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, St.Louis Blues, or Boston Bruins here because I expected all 4 of those teams to be really darn good.
Tampa Bay is fascinating because the underlying (or #fancystats) numbers all scream that they’ve been incredibly lucky thus far. They lead the league in team PDO (1.095), team shooting percentage (15.2%), and have received likely unsustainable goaltending from the unproven Anders Lindback. But still, after a remarkably disappointing season last year, I kind of think they could be legit for the remainder of this one. They won’t contend for the title or anything, but their division is incredibly winnable this season. And they are ridiculously fun to watch. Apparently those Steven Stamkos and Martin St.Louis characters are pretty good at the game of puck.
Honourable Mention: Montreal Canadiens battle with regression. I honestly thought they wouldn’t even be good enough to allow this sort of early season luck to take place.
2. What team has been the biggest disappointment?
John Hoven - It's almost criminal to label a team a disappointment this early in the season. However, with the much talked about 48-game season, the importance of every game is clearly understood. Thus, a case could be made for the Washington Capitals adjusting to Adam Oates new system. But a better case is probably the Philadelphia Flyers. They've had a tough start and fans there are always expecting a team ready for a deep playoff run. Their offense has been sporadic with the absence of Danny Briere and Scott Hartnell's broken foot is a major blow. on the blueline, they're still missing the toughness and leadership of Chris Pronger and haven't had much success trying to plug the holes with their 5-6 defensemen. Andrej Meszaros is now on the shelf, after hurting his shoulder - this after recovering from a torn Achilles injury. Ilya Bryzgalov in net? The Phoenix Coyotes know Bryzgalov. That guy in a Flyers jersey is not Ilya Bryzaglov my friends.
Nathan Eide - Edmonton. They haven't risen the dead or turned water into wine.
Derek Tanabe - Washington seems like the obvious answer here, but I'll go with them. It seemed to me that the only thing impeding that team's success last season (at least prior to a decent playoff run) was Dale Hunter. It's possible the Caps just haven't become acclimated to Adam Oates' system yet but they look completely lifeless. They're somehow carrying play even less frequently than they did during the short-lived Hunter era and Alex Ovechkin just hasn't made much of an impact. It's certainly still possible they turn it around and make the playoffs but maybe it's time to retroactively determine that this was really never an elite team following that President's Trophy win.
Dimitri Fillipovic - This may be a slightly unexpected opinion, but for me personally, the most disappointing team resides in the Northwest Division. Canucks fans will find this impossible to believe, but I’m not talking about their team, despite the fact that the sky that has seemingly already fallen on them. Instead, I’m referring to the Colorado Avalanche.
I expected relatively big things from them heading into this year, after watching them remain in the playoff race till the very end last season. There were very few teams out there with as many fascinating, young two-way players as them. I loved watching them play and figured the future was very bright in Mile High. And I think it still is. But things have been ugly for them thus far, to say the least. If you take away the beating of the Columbus Blue Jackets, they’ve been outscored 16-6 in their 4 other games (heading into Thursday night’s game against Calgary).
Their top line from last season - Downie (torn ACL), Landeskog (concussion), O’Reilly (idiocy from Colorado’s front office) – has been dismantled. Semyon Varlamov, after an impressive run in the KHL during the lockout, is as inconsistent as ever. And the next time they play Paul Stastny with a talented player will be the first time. They really seem to hate him down there.
Honourable mentions: Washington Capitals, and nobody else is close.
3. Which player has been the biggest surprise?
John Hoven - Patrick Marleau, right? No? OK then, take one of the kids Nail Yakupov or Mikael Granlund. Close, but still no. How about Cory Conacher. Tampa Bay have found more lightning in a bottle by getting another Marty St. Louis-type player in Conacher. Some predicted him as a Calder Trophy winner this season and by getting top-6 minutes in Florida he's had plenty of time to show off his tools - speed, grit and willingness to go into the dirty areas of the ice. Diminutive in stature, like Martin St. Louis, he hasn't let 5-foot-8 become the sole part of his story.
Bryan Reynolds - Vladimir Tarasenko. With all of the talk being that the Calder trophy would be in Edmonton for Nail "Don Cherry Hates Me" Yakupov or Justin "I Take Too Long to Make Decisions" Schultz, Tarasenko is the early favorite. The kid can flat out play, and is someone fans are going to pay to watch. If he cools down, we can talk, but right now, my money is on Tarasenko.
Derek Tanabe - It's tough for me to be really surprised by anyone's play in the early going because a huge swath of NHL players is more than capable of catching fire and looking like world-beaters for a given two-week stretch. But since that's a cop-out answer, I'll pick Antti Niemi. I've had to defend him against his detractors quite a bit in the past but I never really thought of him as more than a slightly-above average NHL goalie. He's probably still that, but he's looked absolutely outstanding so far and is one of the biggest reasons the Sharks are undefeated.
Dimitri Fillipovic - Unless he gets injured taking out the trash as I’m typing this, the most surprising player has been Andrei Markov. He’s a guy that was considered one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the league, but unfortunately, there isn’t an asterisk large enough to put next to that statement. He missed 181 games over the past 3 seasons, which means we hadn’t seen him perform at a high level since 2009. Combine that with the fact that he’s 34 years old, and it was very reasonable to question whether he had anything left in the tank heading into the season.
Boy, has he answered that in a big way, though. He has logged nearly 25 minutes of ice-time per game, while leading the pack for points by a defenseman with 8 (all on the power play). It’s fair to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – at least until he proves he can stay on the ice for an extended period of time – but as of right now, he is a great story.
Honourable mentions: Patrick Marleau’s 33.3% shooting percentage.
4. Which player has been the biggest disappointment?
John Hoven - Even a quick review of the LA Kings through their first few weeks of the season would produce a couple of candidates here. Forget about the Stanley Cup hangover, when the season starts in January everybody's sober. So, where do we begin? First off, paging Dwight King - Dwight King, please pick up the white courtesy phone. One of the most talked about Kings during their playoff run last season has been all but invisible thus far. He was playing in the AHL during the lockout too! Like Kyle Clifford, he should have come in and helped drive the bus for the first few weeks, not been a no show. Coach Darryl Sutter has noticed this as well, dropping him to the fourth line for Thursday night's game vs. Nashville. Then, there's Mike Richards. He said he used the time off to heal his nagging injuries from the past few seasons. Shouldn't that have given him an extra boost of energy in the early going? When the team's second line center gets rolling - and he will, he always has - LA may finally start looking more like the Cup team of last year.
Bryan Reynolds - Taylor Hall. The guy is a walking disappointment. How he hasn't demanded a trade out of Edmonton yet is beyond me. [/trolling]
OK, OK. Ryan Suter. This likely isn't fair, but it is true. For $7.5 million a year for the next 13 years, fans had a set of high expectations. He hasn't even approached them, let alone met them. Reasons (read: excuses) have been given, but if you mean to tell me that Jared Spurgeon is the difference between the Suter of last year, and the Suter here now, I'm suggesting you go to the quiet room for a bit. Jonas Brodin, all 4 NHL games of him, has reawakened Suter to a point, but the excuses need to stop, and he needs to start scoring.
Derek Tanabe - I'll take Ryan Suter. It was always going to be interesting to monitor Suter and Shea Weber on different teams to draw conclusions about which one of them was driving the bus in Nashville. Early returns suggest, perhaps unsurprisingly, that it was definitely Weber. Suter has been demolished in reasonably protected minutes in the early going and just doesn't appear to be as effective through the neutral zone as he was with Weber by his side. I'm sure he can still recover and be a capable first-pairing defenseman again but he probably isn't the top-five blueliner he appeared to be at times with the Predators.
Dimitri Fillipovic - It pains me to say this, but it’s Alex Ovechkin. The league is simply funner to follow when Alex Ovechkin is doing Alex Ovechkin things. I’ve been somewhat of an apologist for the formerly ‘Great 8’ for years; I felt for years that people were unfairly critical of him, with most of it stemming from xenophobia.
But even I can’t defend him this season. I can’t remember a player – other than the always entertaining Mason Raymond – inexplicably falling down more often than Ovechkin has to start this year. He constantly looks off-balance, and is routinely trying to do way too much with the puck. This may have to do with the fact that Adam Oates is bizarrely forcing him to play with glorified fourth liners, but still. 2 goals, and just 3 points, in the first 7 games of the season will not get it done. Nor will just 3 shots on goal a game (good for most, but a far, far cry from anything he has ever done before). The Capitals aren’t my most disappointing team because I didn’t think they’d be all that good to begin with, but I expected a bounce-back individual season of sorts for Ovechkin.
Honourable mentions: Ryan Getzlaf’s “hair”. Shave it, dude. Stop hanging on, because your final follicles certainly aren’t.
John Hoven is the founder and editor of MayorsManor.com - selected as 2012's Best Hockey Blog by Yahoo Sports. As a credentialed writer based in LA, his hockey insights and information have been featured on several well known websites, magazines and in print for the LA Newspaper Group. He can also be heard over the airwaves, as he's a regularly featured guest on sports radio stations across North America. Be sure to follow along at www.twitter.com/MayorNHL for his daily notes and inside scoop.
Bryan Reynolds is the editor of Hockey Wilderness, the SB Nation site covering the Minnesota Wild. He also covers the Minnesota Swarm of the NLL for SB Nation Minnesota and dreams of one day being the Senate confirmed Director of Vengeful Beatings - @hockeywildernes.
Nathan Eide is the managing editor of Hockey Wilderness, a Minnesota Wild fan community. Nathan likes long walks on the beach, spending time with his family and enjoys the schadenfreude surrounding the Edmonton Oilers.
Derek Tanabe is currently the managing editor for Fear The Fin, a Sharks blog with up-to-date news and analysis concerning California's only team still chasing the Stanley Cup. You can follow him on twitter at @fearthefin.
Thomas Drance is a Vancouver native currently based in Toronto. He works at MThrty communications , is the managing editor of canucksarmy.com, and a contributing writer at Pass it to Bulis (the Vancouver Sun). Works for Engagementlabs. He's an avid singer who swims everyday in the summer, and eats food that is too spicy for normal human persons. You can follow him on twitter at @CanucksArmy.